June 19, 2009

Prayer and The Year of the Priest

Today the Catholic Church started a year long celebration of the priesthood when Pope Benedict opened up the Year of the Priest. Priests participate in the priesthood of their bishop through an ancient rite called, "the laying on of hands." This sacrament of ordination gives the priest a share in the apostolic authority and power needed to preach, celebrate the sacraments, and help lead the Church. Because they share in an apostolic ministry, priests have a special role for those dedicated to living a life of prayer.

Many people to not pay enough attention to the apostolic dimension of prayer. But no Christian ever prays alone. He is always united to Jesus. To be united to Jesus is to be a member of his Body. That is why Christians are called members of the Body of Christ. Whether we pray or serve or teach or lead or suffer persecution or any other kind of trial; we always do so as members of Christ Body.

Now this body is no more egalitarian than any other body. It has a head - Jesus himself - and it has members organized together, each with unique and unrepeatable gifts. Most of us are members of this Body that allow us to use our gifts for serving our family and bringing the Gospel to the world. This would include Moms and Dads and Sons and Daughters and many others whose lives of love must become the salt, leaven and light of the world.

Others dedicate themselves to the Lord so to bear special witness to the life in the world to come - whose vocation it is to be love at the heart of the Church. This would include not only those men and women who become monks, nuns, brothers, and sisters - but most of all those great witnesses to our faith who lay down our lives for what we believe, the martyrs.

There is one more very important group: those members who exercise their gifts with Holy Orders - an apostolic ministry which shares in a special power of Christ to build up the Church. Priests are members of this final group. The truth is - we are all members of one body. Thus, when any of us pray in the name of Christ, we pray as members of this Body in the unity with all the other members of this Body. Here, our prayers are also offered together through the special ministry entrusted to priests - an apostolic ministry which serves to help make the whole Church holy.

The prayer of the Church is prayer in the Spirit who prays in us. This is true even when we are all alone, up in the Mountains or in the silence of our rooms - because the Holy Spirit who prays in us unites us to the Body of the Christ - our prayers come from God and go to Him. Our spirit-filled prayer because it goes to Jesus, always goes through his spirit-filled Body, even when no one else knows my prayer. The priest has a special role in offering to God these sorts of prayers - the prayers the Spirit stirs in the Church.

Priests realize this part of their ministry in a special way when they pray liturgical prayer. They do not know what everyone is praying in the secret of their hearts, but they have the authority to offer these spirit inspired prayers to the Lord. This includes not only the Mass but also an offering of the psalms that is made throughout the day. This is called the Liturgy of the Hours. When a priest prays, he prays to offer the prayers of the whole Church to God the Father through Jesus to whom they are bound for this purpose.

Great mystics and saints understood this special mission of the priest. They would humbly ask priests to remember them in their prayers, to intercede for them. They did this not only because it was a nice thing to do. They did this most of all because they knew the power of the apostolic ministry that the priest has been entrusted with. These holy men and women knew that the ministry of the priest helped them fulfill the special tasks God entrusted to them.

The great saints also understood how important it was to pray for priests. Just as the Body of Christ needs priests -- priests need the Body of Christ. Each one needs prayers if they are to fulfill the great ministry entrusted to them. This is the way Jesus willed that we live in Him - each of us looking out for one another, never ceasing to pray for each other, each with a different kind of gift of prayer, as irreplaceable and as necessary, but all in different ways. This year, the Lord calls us to pray for priests - such prayers are part of what it means to begin to pray.

June 14, 2009

Corpus Christi

In recent posts, we have been reflecting on the Holy Trinity. This mystery of uncreated and eternal Love is the very source of our lives and of the whole universe. Understanding this changes the whole way we see reality. A purely secular world does not see meaning in things. For some, everything is just an illusion, a big game. For others, the distinct uniqueness of this sunrise, or that flower, or someone's smile -- such things can not fully be seen. In their wisdom, everything is caught up in one idea, one meaning - a meaning that absorbs and chokes out everything else. But for the believer, everything is filled with wonder and awe: it all comes from Love and is awaited by Love. Love treasures the unique and the distinct inexhaustible surprise of this person and this moment in this particular manifestation of creation because such things are lovable in the most unrepeatable and irreplaceable way. What is more, when we contemplate the Holy Trinity, we even see a kind of impatient, yearning love breaking through such things - the kind of love that can never be indifferent, that must go out and seek the beloved.

This is what we celebrate in Corpus Christi -- the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament with a presence that fulfills his promise to be with us until the end of time. Jesus himself said that those who ate his Body and drank his Blood would have eternal life. Early Christian martyrs risked their lives to go to the Eucharist on Sundays, so dependent were they on the power that comes from communing with the Lord. The real presence of Christ, his Eucharistic presence, is so powerful that the ancient Christians considered Holy Communion "the medicine of immortality," "the antidote for death, and "Journey Bread - Vaiticum" by which we live forever. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1405 http://www.nccbuscc.org/catechism/text/pt2sect2chpt1art3.shtml#vi.

The eucharistic procession for the solemn feastday brings out a certain aspect of this mystery of Christ's presence among us. There is a tendency among some to call Christ's real presence "static" or else a passive reality on our hearts and minds. But Christ's presence is never static or passive. The Risen Lord, the Victor, is fully alive -- inexhaustibly dynamic and active in his immortal and almighty love. He is on the move. The time is now. He has come searching for us - and it is his desire for us that stirs our yearning for Him.

He is always coming in a new way into our hearts, into our lives, and into our communities. All of creation, every moment is filled with the glory of his coming. Sometimes this glory is so hidden - by our sins, by suffering by evil. But the glory of coming is there - if we look for it. He comes in the name of the love of the Father. He comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. He comes in the proclamation and preaching of the Word of God. He comes in the witness of those who love him. He comes in the distressing disguise of the poor, the suffering, the forgotten. He comes in the Holy Eucharist. Each new presence He brings only anticipates His Final Coming. And in the procession, we remember this coming and we hope for it and we cry "maranatha, come Lord Jesus!"

June 9, 2009

Beauty Ever Ancient Ever New

In my last post, I promised to speak more about the Divine Economy. The Divine Economy concerns all of God's dealing with creation. It is distinguished from the inner-life of God, a reality inaccessible to us but revealed through the Divine Economy.

Knowing the divine economy is the only way we have insight into the communion of love which is the inner life of the Trinity. Another way of saying this is we can only know God through the humanity of Christ. Christ alone, the Image of the Invisible God, can reveal God. The Divine Economy is most fully realized in the humanity of the Lord Jesus.

The Divine Economy reveals the Trinity -- but the Trinity is so much more. Those who say "yes" to the Gift of God offered in this economy of salvation find themselves drawn to this mystery, caught up into it. Anyone who does not see this will never understand why the ancient Christians so fiercely debated the dogmas about Christ and the Trinity. They were trying to protect and hand on the mystery they had received, that they knew in their hearts. The ancient Christians, and Christians of the East to this day, consider contemplation of the inner-life of God "theology". This sort of theology (mystical theology or experiential theology) is completely different from what is deemed academic theology today. It is more a matter of the very core of one's person - a prayer of the heart - offered in the deepest sanctuary of man. Those who want to experience the Holy Trinity are exhorted by the great saints to enter into the silence of prayer and search for the Lord in the depths of one own self. The reason this kind of theology is possible in this way is because the Trinity dwells in this deepest center of who we are. The Trinity is present: more fully present to us than we are to ourselves. This mystery is what Jesus establishes and reveals to us through the Gift of the Holy Spirit - the Gift that moves the Divine Economy from something we speak about to a reality we live.

In fact, the English word "economy" comes from a Greek term meaning "the management of one's household." God the Father manages his household in such a way that our hearts find their home in Him and He in us. Along these lines, Elisabeth of the Trinity, a 19th Century Carmelite who loved to spend time searching for the Lord in her heart, asserted that our true home is in the bosom of the Trinity. She explained to her married sister that we are not present to God as slaves but as sons - participants in the eternal Sonship of Christ Jesus. The human heart is where God makes his home and His Heart is the only place where the our hearts can be at home.
The divine economy has two dimensions: the visible and socially historic, and the invisible and personally spiritual. By this I mean that God has created a visible and invisible cosmos - things that are seen and others that are not. His economy extends to both these realms. In the visible universe we see the work of creation and all of salvation history. The prophets, the priests and kings were all the instruments of his great faithfulness to us. The promises they revealed were fulfilled in the most wonderful and unimaginable way when the Father sent his only begotten Son. Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God, the Word made Flesh, the author and perfector of our faith: through his life, death and resurrection He perfectly revealed the eternal plan of the Father. A fully historical, completely concrete, scandalously particular man, He was rejected and put to death because the Holy Spirit revealed through Christ's miracles and teachings that Jesus himself was God. By his ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit into the Church, those who have faith in Jesus and are baptized become actual members of his glorified Body - revelators of the love of the Father to the world.

In all these visible works, the Lord has manifested himself and become present to us in ever new and more surprising ways. You might say He is a wild and untamed God: no system can contain Him or anticipate the splendors of His love He continues to manifest through his saints. This should be developed so much more - but I simply list it now to give a small taste of what God has made visibly manifest.

Just a note about the incomprehensible transcendent love of God: Some think they have figured God out with their own limited rationality. C.S. Lewis struggled with a form of this on his path to Christianity. The religions of the East seem to answer the deficiencies of the moralizing God taught to him in his youth. But even in his conflicting attractions to atheism and pantheism, it was as if he wanted to define what God can and cannot do - what He can and cannot be. What he discovered was that the only god limited rationality can arrive at is a static, stale and dry passionless idea. It was compelling for him that everything was absorbed in this one thing. But in this effort, as intellectually satisfying as it was, something did not fully resonate. In the back of his mind there was a huanting suscipicion that there might be something more.

In fact, to see God as a thing, even an absorbing thing, to believe that all things are this one thing is to lose the point altogether. God is not a thing among other things nor even the only thing. Whatever we think we mean by thing - God is totally other: incomprehensible in his power, his knowledge, his essence. But to those who receive the Holy Spirit, the splendor of his glory is manifest to their faith - his ineffable love and inscrutable plan is revealed in their hearts.

Thankfully, God does not limit his being or activity to some idealized spectrum of human ideas. This was one of the things that C.S. Lewis would have discovered when he read G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. While for now I do not have time to compare Lewis's Surprised by Joy with Chesterton's Orthodoxy - they make a great comparison. For our purposes, it will have to suffice to say that God is physical, concrete, particular, historical in his great love for us because He loves all that He has made, especially the irreplaceable uniqueness of each person He has willed into being. He yearns with a friendship love for us and this yearning has moved him to become like us in all things but sin - and this has opened up for us the possibility of being like Him in all things when we renounce sin and cling to him.

In this is fulfilled Jesus Christ's great desire, the prayer He prayed the night before He died: that we might be one in Him as He is in the Father. This is the communion He thirsts for with each of us and all of us together. The human person was created in the very image and likeness of God because the ultimate end of all of this is the perfect unity of creatures with the Holy Trinity. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #260.)

Yet he not only works in the concrete particularity that characterizes our day to day existence in the real world. He also works invisibly. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of the spiritual missions of the Son and the Spirit.

Here we come to the main theme: God is Beauty ever ancient and ever new. He is before all that is - the 3,000 to 5,000 year old Bristlecone symbolizes this. Biblically, we were scarcely out of the Garden when this tree is thought to have sprouted on the earth - yet after all these millennia its fir is soft and full of life. And unlike a Pullman novel or the picture of the dead Bristlecone at the top of this article: He is never old, never exhausted, never spent. Christian life coming from God is similar: this life is more ancient than creation itself because it is the very life of God. And, at the same time, it is ever fresh, new and childlike. Inexhaustible and unimaginable - it is the Lord's greatest surprise. Christianity is not a religion of old gurus on mountains who have grown cynical toward life-- it is the faith of the children of God who have only now begun to live.

In our next post we will consider the progression or new creation that God's new life ignites in us. We will see that He constantly gives himself to us in new ways to deepen our friendship and to equip us with everything we need for the great work with which He desires to entrust us. (Photos by Fr. John Gracey, Pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bishop, CA)

June 4, 2009

Trinity Sunday

At the heart of all true Christian spirituality is the great mystery of the Holy Trinity. This mystery revealed by Jesus is communicated directly into the depths of our hearts by faith in Him. Some people see the mystery as a puzzle to be solved and yet never solvable. Others try to describe the reality of Three Divine Persons in One God as a triangle or shamrock or some other metaphor. While some of these insights on occasion shed some light and answer some questions, very few of them actually lead to a deeper contemplation of the mystery. For those not content to approach God as a mere intellectual exercise, there are the great saints and mystics who have attempted to describe an experience of the Triune Godhead as something much more than a head-trip. This has been true since the very beginnings of our faith.

The Gospels profess the one God while at the same time they witness to the Father’s love of his “beloved Son,” Jesus’ love of his Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit who is also the “promise of the Father”. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in perfect possession of one another – each enveloped and enveloping the other Divine Persons in eternal being, inexhaustible knowing, and infinite love. In fact, it is their mutual relations in their divine life, light and love that distinguish each Divine Person. Thus, it is of apostolic tradition, in our earliest creeds, that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are to be worshipped as one God. The Fathers of the Church called this one God ‘the Three’ at least as early as 180 A.D. (See http://tinyurl.com/23tfmq.) A 19th Century mystic recovers this original usage for the Western Church when she refers to the Trinity as “my Three, my All, my beatitude, infinite solitude, immensity in which I loose myself.”

We do not appreciate the gravity of such assertions, how absolutely surprising this revelation is. The idea of a passionate God who lives in an eternal movement of love is not what cold reason or cynical experience prepares one for. The wisdom of this age always aspires to a changeless, disinterested Absolute without passion. The pure, the altruistic, the ideal must be objective – never personal. But the Christian God was never experienced as a static heartless reality by the mystics. Pseudo-Dionysius even speaks of “Divine Eros.”

In his usage, eros is a love that yearns for union. Love in this sense involves intense passion, yearning desire, and unquenchable movement. It is like a raging fire. Changing things were considered less real than the unchanging eternal truths. But through their faith, they experienced an eternal Furnace of burning Love at the source of all that is – at once, ever ancient and ever new. They no longer believed in the distant, disinterested, dispassionate Divine Being of the philosophers – They clung the dynamic, jealous, Lover of the Hebrews – the Bridegroom of the Bride.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit, the freely given personal presence of God dwelling in them as in a Temple, communicated this divine passion to them. Because the Spirit is inseparable from the Son, every time they received this gift, they knew and enjoyed the presence of the Risen Lord in ever new ways. They asserted that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share in an unchangeable movement of Love, an ineffable life of communion in one undivided Nature not merely because they were told that this was so, but because only assertions like this could explain what was unfolding in their own heart. God, One in Three and Three in One, was for them not a confounding puzzle, but a heart rending mystery. St. Gregory of Nanzianzus relates, “I have not even begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendor. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me.”

Up until now, we have only considered the inner life of the Trinity as it is experienced through the divine indwelling. The presence of God is dynamic. It evokes a response of the heart. We can ignore this dynamism – but only by becoming hard hearted. But to live by love, accepting the enveloping call of this mystery of love is required. The unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the loving dynamism of their living communion, calls on the very depths of our existence. It is to this love our life is directed. It is through being enveloped in this mystery that we discover the truth of who we really are. But we do not share in the inner life of God by nature – we participate in his life by grace. It is to the Gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the divine economy that we will turn to in our next post – because only through these gifts that we can glimpse God’s ultimate purpose, his dream for us to live in the bosom of the Holy Trinity.